Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Their
“reward” for a coolly-manufactured home semi-final triumph over the Waratahs
(44-26) seems more like a passport to purgatory.
But at least
the Lions are well aware - and might quite enjoy - that they will be firm
underdogs for Saturday’s Super Rugby final against defending champions the
Crusaders in Christchurch (09:35 SA time).
no fear … simply throw everything they have,” was the advice of SuperSport
pundit and former Springbok flyhalf Butch James in post-semi analysis.
In many ways,
there will be less pressure on Warren Whiteley’s men this time, as they help
the Cantabrians make history by featuring in the first ever final featuring the
same two outfits in successive years - but also having to visit one of rugby’s
most formidable fortresses.
have already confirmed a very praiseworthy landmark now by becoming the first
South African side to reach the showpiece for three years running, even if the
Bulls’ achievement of three appearances in four years is really more impressive
because they won the silverware every time (2007, 2008 and 2010).
Johannesburg-based franchise, this is a desperate quest, by contrast, for
“third time lucky” after their stumble at the last hurdles in both 2016 and
booking that final ticket again is nevertheless a glowing achievement by the
Lions, considering how much more challenging it is to create genuinely
title-quality teams in South Africa these days, so damaging has become the
exodus of hardened players (and even some younger, emerging customers) to
yourself a chance, just being in the final,” reminded Whiteley with pleasingly
glass-half-full conviction in his immediate post-match television interview.
“There is no better place to go and do it than Christchurch.”
reference, of course, was an automatic admission of the magnitude of the task
facing the long-haul visitors, given the Crusaders’ amazing home record of 20 knockout-phase
triumphs without any blemishes since the late 1990s.
the backdrop seemed near-perfect for a Lions triumph over the mighty ‘Saders in
the final, given their Highveld advantage and the crucial fact - at the time -
that no team had yet crossed the Indian Ocean either way to snatch the
Crusaders, of course, to bust the pattern … as they duly did in a 25-17
price the Lions now doing it the other way around? The sensible argument, like
it or not, seems to be lightning not striking twice (or at least so staggeringly
Crusaders just seem well-nigh unbeatable in high-pressure matches, and
especially at their own stomping ground.
also that the champions have already beaten the Lions again since the 2017
final, pipping them 14-8 at Ellis Park on April Fools’ Day in the
latest version of the competition.
Crusaders were also ruthlessly professional in their own semi earlier on Saturday,
beating compatriots the Hurricanes by exactly the same margin (18 points) as the
Lions saw off their plucky Aussie foes.
Lions share many of the constructive, entertaining rugby principles employed by
their opponents next weekend, which should make for a rousing spectacle.
also be well advised to keep stressing among themselves over the course of the
next few days that possibly their most polished, consistent standards of an
otherwise imperfect season have come in the last three weeks, featuring
clear-cut triumphs over the Bulls, Jaguares and Waratahs in that order.
Yes, there is
a worrisome, associated little habit during the period of them “sleepwalking”
in the first quarter … a luxury they almost certainly won’t be able to get away
with in Christchurch, where any early frailties could simply mean curtains, and
maybe nastily so, for them.
phenomenon surfaced again on Saturday, the ‘Tahs romping into a 14-0 lead with
some expansive play and very nearly making it a potentially more serious 21 or
thereabouts: a budding breakout from deep was only thwarted by a priceless,
smart interception from Ruan Combrinck.
the ability - and just as importantly composure - to turn such adversity around
and win with daylight to spare also the mark of a really good outfit?
have looked so emboldened in the last few weeks, in addition, by the return
from injury layoffs of Whiteley as both their leader and educated No 8 and
Malcolm Marx, the rampaging, multi-talented hooker who only seems to get better
and better as an all-rounder in his pack-fulcrum berth.
In a game
which many in New Zealand and elsewhere will otherwise contemplate merely as
the Lions’ obliging strapping of themselves into the electric chair, if you
like, a further factor to gee up the underdogs is the known break-up of the
three-year (or more) core of their squad after this occasion.
be no better send-off for some of their contract-ending personnel than ticking
the box for Mission Impossible ...
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